Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

She Was "A Comon Night Walker Abusing Him & Being of Ill Behaviour": Violence and Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

She Was "A Comon Night Walker Abusing Him & Being of Ill Behaviour": Violence and Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century London

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On February 4, 1738 the Daily Gazetteer reported that Millicent Hoskins, Elizabeth Holben, and Sarah Oakley were being held in Newgate Prison for robbing and assaulting George Read. The three women reportedly dragged him to "a notorious Brothell ... shut ... the Doors upon him, and demanded of him a Shilling a piece, threatening to cut his Throat, unless he complied, which he accordingly did." However, still not satisfied with the amount Read gave them, "they still insisted upon more." Read managed to escape, "by which Means he did, in all Probability, save his Life." (1) Yet, when we compare the newspaper report with the account from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, a different version of this incident emerges. Most importantly, in the latter record, there is no mention of a brothel, and rather than be sent to Newgate Prison, the three women were actually acquitted. (2)

The discrepancies between the report in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and the account in the Daily Gazetteer clearly illustrate the sensational nature of crime reportage in early modern and Hanoverian England, particularly when the alleged criminal was a prostitute, and therefore already associated with immorality, disorder, and crime. Much like today, some newspaper editors and publishers did not report on violent crimes unless they were spectacularly violent or scandalous; instead, they selected only those crime reports deemed most "newsworthy." (3) As a result, salacious crimes, such as prostitutes' assaults, tended to be overrepresented in the newspaper press, thereby skewing scholars' perceptions of both the nature of violent crimes and of prostitutes.

This article examines many of the themes and issues inherent in the charges laid against Hoskins, Holben, and Oakley. Specifically, it explores the representation of lower-class female prostitutes when they were involved in violent or aggressive confrontations as either the victims or perpetrators of assaults. I do not seek to explore the actual frequency of violent encounters between female prostitutes and those they encountered in the streets, alehouses, taverns, or brothels; rather, using a variety of printed sources and legal records, I address how popular commentators, journalists, moralists, and other authorities portrayed prostitutes' involvement in violence. (4) Although prostitutes were both depicted as the targets and agents of violence, incidents in which prostitutes physically assaulted or verbally insulted potential male clients or their neighbours generated far more discussion than reports about prostitutes who were the victims of violent crimes. Yet, what constituted excessive aggression in the eighteenth century was not limited to physical assaults; prostitutes were also portrayed as unreasonably aggressive when they hurled slanderous insults. Though much of the violence associated with prostitution can be classified as relatively minor physical and verbal assaults--what Jennine Hurl-Eamon calls "petty violence,"--these actions were nonetheless considered unacceptable. (5) A systematic analysis of these representations will help us develop a better understanding of perceptions of prostitutes and the relationship between gender, violent crime, and prostitution.

While it is not surprising that aggressive prostitutes were presented as vicious, prostitutes who were the victims of violence were habitually portrayed as partly responsible for their injuries. Moreover, the limited reportage of male violence against prostitutes suggests that male physical and verbal aggression continued to be seen as somewhat acceptable. Hence, though prostitutes' sexual transgressions already defined them as deviant, those who also resorted to acts of violence were seen to be particularly unruly. The greater emphasis on prostitutes' proclivity to violence suggests that policing authorities, journalists, and social commentators portrayed prostitutes as posing a pervasive threat to the peace and stability of the nation, rather than as pitiable victims who were deserving of charitable aid. …

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